The Kern County Voter Engagement Project is gearing up for another big push this school year, with two big events taking place next year — the Presidential election and 2020 Census.
The goal of the volunteer-led nonprofit is to encourage Kern County residents to be civically engaged. This next year, volunteers hope to inform community members why they should be enumerated and why their vote counts.
“The Kern County Voter Engagement project started with the mission of registering people to vote, but also getting them civically engaged,” Yvette Flores, the project organizer said.
The project was founded in 2016 by Linda Fiddler. Volunteers from all sorts of political parties, backgrounds and age ranges come together to canvass neighborhoods with a mission to register as many people as they can and to educate students in local schools about being civically engaged.
Neel Sannappa, the director of the project, said the engagement project uses a political software system that shows data on people’s voting history. This helps volunteers find areas in Kern County that have high and low propensity voting rates, which helps with outreach efforts.
The software’s data shows how often a person has voted in a given time period and if they’ve voted — not who or what they’ve voted for.
“We use (the software) on a non-partisan basis to help boost voter registration in those areas and to give folks in neighborhoods the tools, so they can go out and talk to their neighbors about voting,” Sannappa said.
Flores described the project as a grassroots effort that calls on all residents to participate.
“A lot of the times the people who are encouraged to come out to canvas are people who are really passionate about a specific issue in our community,” she said.
In neighborhoods with low propensity voters, volunteers — many of whom speak multiple languages — find people who vote regularly and ask if they’d like to volunteer as a way to inform their neighbors of the major events taking place, such as elections and the 2020 Census.
“Someone who doesn’t vote often isn’t going to feel enthusiastic about wanting to go into their neighborhoods and knock on a door and talk to folks about voting,” Sannappa said. “But somebody who’s been voting every year for like 10 or 15 years will.”
Volunteers also visit high school and college campuses and give a non-partisan presentation, discussing how voting works and its importance. They reference Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren and Representative Dorothy Donahoe — two people from Kern County who were influential in civic engagement.
During the first several months of the project, Sannappa said they registered about 1,300 people when they partnered with other organizations that were doing voter registration work.
To date, the project has collected nearly 5,000 voter registrations through canvassing and school efforts, according to Sannappa.
People between the ages of 18 to 25 is one of the largest voting blocks that is underrepresented, according to Flores. The turnout for that age group was 17 percent in the last U.S. midterm election, Flores said. That’s why the project focuses on students.
“What we really want to do is get the youth vote to actually understand the
importance of voting in elections,” Sannappa said. “The presidential election gives us an opportunity to go in and talk to kids and get them to be a little more aware. ”
The 2020 Census plays a big part in voting, said Flores. It determines how many people we vote for and the number of seats each state gets. She plans on relaying this message this year through the project’s efforts.
“[It] is all decided by the 2020 Census, and it’s just as important as the
presidential election,” Flores said.
Flores describes the group as one that actively engages with people of all ages and backgrounds on a personal level. Volunteers go beyond talking about partisan politics and focus more on the importance of voting, regardless of political affiliation.
“It’s getting them from registering to vote, to the polls,” Flores said.
Flores said one of the goals of the project is to inform vulnerable communities that have been underrepresented, such as undocumented people. She hopes the Voter Engagement Project can inspire change in the community for the better by having better representation for historically underrepresented populations.
“We have the ability to educate people and represent people who are
underrepresented,” Flores said. “If we educate enough people, we have the ability to represent more people in our community who don’t have the ability to have a say in our local politics.”
The project doesn’t just focus on national events. It also stresses the importance of what is taking place locally.
“What’s even more important and what can affect your life instantly is the way that Board of Supervisors vote, or the way that the city council votes and who’s representing you and your community,” Sannappa said.
The project has a big message for those who are not civically engaged.
Sannappa said, “(The Voter Engagement Project) allows people to realize voting is one thing that people can’t take away from you.”
Featured photo: Volunteers for the Kern County Voter Engagement Project, courtesy of Voter Engagement Project
Kern Sol News is a youth-led journalism organization in Kern County. In their stories, reporters shine light on health and racial disparities in under-served communities across Kern. For more stories by South Kern Sol, head to southkernsol.org.